This week marks the 25th anniversary of our annual Britain’s Best Driver’s Car shootout. Andrew Frankel recalls the highlights
Andrew Frankel Autocar
8 October 2014

Twenty-five years ago, a group of Autocar & Motor staffers gathered together at Castle Combe to find the identity of Britain’s Best Driver’s Car.

I’d like to say that the idea was to give readers a definitive insight into the finest-handling cars on sale but, as the uninvited office junior, I can tell you that it was just a jolly. But not for long. That year, 1989, we crowned our first BBDC champion, came up with a format now copied by countless others and, just for good measure, wrote off a Ferrari

What I have loved about BBDC ever since I blagged my way to Castle Combe for round two in 1990 is that it always – and I do mean always – retains the ability to surprise.

You can test and analyse every new sporting car on sale and use this knowledge to make a prediction, sit back and watch BBDC blow your preconceptions to pieces. That year it was won by a Mazda MX-5

It is the classless nature of BBDC that continues to form a large part of both its enduring appeal and its importance. You still can’t look at the badge, the power figure and the price and work out the winner; were that the case in 2012, the Toyota GT86 would have come last by so much that we’d have had to put it in a garage by itself to spare it further embarrassment.

Instead, it won, beating a Porsche Cayman R and a Lotus Exige S, among others.

What’s never changed despite holding the event on road and on track, at locations as far removed as the south of France and the Isle of Man, are the qualities we’re looking for in a winner – and it’s not the car with the most power, the most grip or the fastest lap time.

Primarily, this is a test of handling, a subject that, far from being merely about tyres, suspension and steering, is affected by every area of a car’s dynamic endeavour: engine, gearbox, brakes… as well as its weight, weight distribution and the number and location of the driven wheels. If you attempted to express it as a mathematical formula, you could nail blackboards to every wall in the room and still run out of space.

But if you just sit in a car and drive, it’s surprisingly easy. Handling is simply a measure of a car’s ability to execute the instructions of its driver. Everything else stems from that.

Does it go where you point it and when you pointed it there? How much confidence does it inspire? Do you feel like part of the machine or it like part of you? We’ve had fantastically fast cars that are pussycats to drive – often V12 Lamborghinis, curiously enough – and others that have scared us stupid.

The closest I’ve ever come to binning a car at a BBDC day was in a Dodge Viper at a wet Goodwood where a fluked lock-to-lock catch at over 100mph saved my skin. I’d have minded less were the car not travelling in a straight line at the time…

The format has evolved over the years and we still like to mix up our locations. In 1992 we had just seven cars to judge, in 2003 a barely believable 26.

We also used to drag famous names along to help sell the story and give us the courage of our convictions, but over time we’ve seen that when it comes to judging a sporting car’s fitness for purpose, our verdicts are as reliable as any.

We often find a turkey clucking unexpectedly in the coop. I remember the Alfa Romeo Brera being quite extraordinarily bad on the track.

The first Black Series Mercedes – the SLK55 of 2007 – made us wonder what AMG had been thinking of, but I think that the worst, relative to expectations, was the Ferrari 348tb of 1993. Initially, some of us thought it our fault that we couldn’t contain its vicious, unprovoked oversteer. It wasn’t. Rubbish Ferraris are incredibly rare, but that day the 348 showed us that they do exist.

We did think about getting all the winners from 25 years of BBDC on one track to name the king of kings, but we were stopped by the impossibility of ensuring every car was in factory condition. One tired shock absorber could send a car from first to last and render the results meaningless.

So you’ll have to put up with a gut feeling. My gut feeling, as it happens. And as the bloke who’s been to more BBDCs than anyone else, I guess that will have to do. 

Perhaps we should give it to the Honda NSX or Ferrari 550 Maranello, the only cars in the history of BBDC to have successfully defended their title the following year. But I’m not going to.

The greatest achievement I have witnessed came in 2010, where the field included the Ferrari 458, Noble M600, Mercedes-Benz SLS and the Lotus Evora that had won the previous year. And the Porsche 911 GT3 RS not only beat the strongest field we had ever assembled at that time, but also did so without a single dissenting voice from the seven judges.

Next week we shall publish the results of the 26th BBDC, but there’s one secret that I can share with you now: for the anniversary, we are returning to Castle Combe, we will have a Ferrari with us and, this time, none of us writes it off. Allegedly.

Every past winner

Porsche 944 S2 (1989), Mazda MX-5 (1990), Honda NSX (1991), Honda NSX (1992), Porsche 968 Clubsport (1993), Porsche 911 (993) Carrera (1994), Lotus Esprit S4S (1995), Lotus Elise (1996), Ferrari 550 Maranello (1997), Ferrari 550 Maranello (1998), Ferrari 360 Modena (1999), Porsche 911 (996) Turbo (2000), Lotus Elise Series 2 (2001), Lamborghini Murcielago (2002), Mazda MX-5 (2003), Noble M400 (2004), Porsche 911 (997) Carrera S (2005), Porsche Cayman S (2006), Audi R8 (2007), Nissan GT-R (2008), Lotus Evora (2009), Porsche 911 997 GT3 RS (2010), Porsche Cayman R (2011), Toyota GT86 (2012), Porsche 911 (991) GT3 (2013)

Britain’s Best Driver’s Car - 25 years of memories

25 years of numbers - the stats behind our Britain’s Best Driver’s Car tests

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Our Verdict

Porsche 911 GT3

Latest 911 GT3 is big and brutal; despite this Porsche has made it faster, more responsive and more user-friendly than ever

8 October 2014
None of Autocar's winners is front wheel drive. Why should this be - is it because fwd cars are inherently less good handling, or is it I suspect because they cannot be provoked into entertaining power on oversteer like rwd and sometimes four wheel drive models? Or is it because for safety reasons, none of today's front wheel drive models possesses the sheer balance and adjustability that the Peugeot 205GTi had?
No matter, keep on featuring articles like BBHC. It's highly subjective, but always an interesting read.

8 October 2014
As well as the advances in vehicle design you can see from this snapshot of 25 years the progress in photography too with the birth of the digital age.

 Offence can only be taken not given- so give it back!

8 October 2014
That handling test, and Andrew Frankel's various reviews at the time made the 968CS a real object of desire in my life. Eventually I purchased a full MO30 spec CS, that was about five years old and very little used when I bought it, and I still have it and cherish it to this day . I'm actually secretly rather glad that they have not appreciated through the roof like its contemporary 911 brothers, because it means for those that know, those who bother to do the research, a truly marvellous Porsche can still be purchased for a song, and make spectacular nineties motoring available to almost any motoring enthusiast in employment . The Mazda RX7 is probably cheaper still, and was indeed faster around Goodwood at the time of the test, but I don't actually fit inside one, so never really researched them.

rxl

8 October 2014
3 observations:

-the Porsche are the kings of drivers cars.

-the second place for the most winners is Japan :D!

-surprisingly (maybe) never a BMW had won this.

8 October 2014
the Lancia Delta Integrale from your list?

Is it because you have never driven one? This car was considered to perform better than the 911 at the time, with delicious feedback from the 4WD Chassis and the steering wheel and has been considered by those who know, as one of if not the finest handling cars ever produced.

Instead of pandering to the common denominator with Porsches and Feraris why not enlighten the readership???

How disappointing.

8 October 2014
Have I driven one? Every version of every one I think. I've even written one off, but that's another story. Integrales are fine cars but ultimately it's down to how the cars performed on the day in the view of the very many judges whose collective opinions go to make up our verdicts. Pandering to Porsches and Ferraris? Not really, just calling it how we see it.

9 October 2014
Andrew F wrote:

Have I driven one? Every version of every one I think. I've even written one off, but that's another story. Integrales are fine cars but ultimately it's down to how the cars performed on the day in the view of the very many judges whose collective opinions go to make up our verdicts. Pandering to Porsches and Ferraris? Not really, just calling it how we see it.

Thanks for your response. I have hunch the Delta was not even included in the previous comparisons (correct me if I am wrong as I'd be interested to see what your testers of old thought of it at the time) and how on earth did you write one off?? ;-) Its one of the safest cars to drive out there not to mention most fun on a A or B road....

8 October 2014
25 years !!! time flies when you're having fun.

8 October 2014
Looks like the 911 has this sewn up from a historical point of view, an iteration of the last 4 generations of 911 has won this contest.

What I also notice is that, among the handling classics, there are a few interlopers whose main strengths lie elsewhere (GT-R, R8, 360 Modena) that were perhaps new that year and shone a little brighter in the tester's eyes?


8 October 2014
Read nearly every BBHC and it has always struck me that surely the producers of Top Gear have cribbed this format for years. As for why no FWD car has won BBHC - because it is an inherently compromised layout. The weights are not balanced between the axles and wheels are good at either turning a car or driving it. Not both. For much the same reason there is no FWD Formula 1 car.

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